In the Black Hills of Wyoming and South Dakota, where pride in self-reliance and distrust of organized religion run deeper than veins of gypsum, a modern/western take on the traditional church service is bringing a community together.
Using a horse barn and arena to set the tone for a relaxed worship service, Black Hills Cowboy Church in Beulah, Wyoming, is using skeet shooting, archery and team roping to teach the love of Jesus.
Kids play in horse stalls and on climbing walls and think, “this is the coolest church ever,” said Rev. Isaac Smith, lead teaching pastor. More importantly to Isaac is that the church theme of “All my life I’ve KNOWN ABOUT God, but I didn’t really KNOW God” is relatable.
And it is resonating – out of the 160 folks who have attended since the Christmas Eve launch, 40 percent have been unchurched. Some drive up to 45 minutes to get there, ecstatic to have a church where they feel they belong. Isaac and Lead Pastor Rev. Tom Karp have a vision to plant at least 20 cowboy churches throughout the West.
“We can start with ranch and rodeo activities and then grow into services,” said Isaac. “We think we’ll have several small launches soon.”
Ministry runs in the Smith family DNA. Isaac’s brother, Rev. Sam Smith, lead pastor at Joliet Wesleyan in Montana, is using ranching events to reach the lost in Biddle and Pendroy, Montana. Sam said, “Rural ministry won’t work at all unless you have a supportive spouse. I am extremely blessed to have a wonderful wife (Dianne) who loves what we do. She has an amazing passion for these communities and the people. She looks for ways to make our everyday activities into a means of outreach.”
Sam and Dianne’s son, Joseph, turned a love for cars into a ministry called SHIFT Garage in Rapid City, South Dakota. He is passionate about the ministry, which not only annually repairs about 150 cars and gives away 30 others to single moms and others in need, but also helps bring people up out of poverty through training.
“I realize that I’m probably a little biased, but I have lived my whole life in church and have never seen a better way to meet people in their time of need and help them out with a real life problem than a ministry like this,” said Joseph. “It seems to me that’s what Jesus did when he healed people.” Joseph is working on launching this ministry in new locations and has been contacted by someone as far away as Australia.
Looking for ways to help members in daily life and getting everyone involved are key at the Black Hills Cowboy Church, which wants to add “training border collies” to its list of serving opportunities. Pastor Karp’s wife, Brenda, leads the worship team, and Isaac’s wife, Esther, runs the all-important coffee bar and “is neck deep in ministry.”
Ministry is indeed a family business to Isaac and Esther, who have three sons serving in ministry roles, including son, Wesley, who serves as the district superintendent in the region. In Alaska, son, Levi, is busy as lead pastor of the Wesleyan church, Awaken, in Anchorage. He also is helping plant a church in Seattle. When not devoting his time to these ministries, he flies to the North Slope to share his testimony with oil field workers, as well as holding services at a military base south of Fairbanks. They have another son, Nathan, who serves in Anchorage as a lay leader.
Isaac speaks proudly of his grandchildren as well. He has a 16-year-old grandson who critiques his sermons “in a very thoughtful way” and who wants to plant his own cowboy church, and a 12-year-old granddaughter he says is a “bold and outgoing” evangelist. Another grandson will graduate soon from Indiana Wesleyan University and plans to raise up a church planting team.
“God is very good,” said Isaac. “I get to discuss preaching with my grandsons … I get to build that into their lives. This is what we live for.”
Jennifer Jones serves as district administrator for the South Carolina District.